By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The age of young suspects must be considered in deciding if they have to be told by police of their right to remain silent or have a lawyer present, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
By a 5-4 vote, the high court held the suspect's age was a factor that must be taken into account in determining if the juvenile felt free to end the police questioning.
"It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.
"Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that common-sense reality, we hold that a child's age properly informs" the analysis of whether the juvenile is in custody and must be told of their legal rights, she said.
The case involved a special-education student, identified only as JDB, who was 13 in 2005 when he confessed to several home break-ins in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, while being questioned at school by police and school officials.
His attorneys challenged the use of the confessions.
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled against JDB. It said he was not in custody because he was free to leave at any time, he was asked if he was willing to answer questions and the interview was brief.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling and sent the case back to state court to decide whether JDB was in custody when interrogated, taking into account all relevant circumstances, including his age.
Sotomayor said a child's age may not be a determinative or even a significant factor in every case, but it cannot be ignored.
Moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four liberals in the majority ruling.
The court's four staunchest conservatives dissented.
"The court's decision in this case may seem on first consideration to be modest and sensible, but in truth it is neither," Justice Samuel Alito wrote, saying the ruling was not needed to protect the rights of minors during police questioning.
That position had been argued by the Obama administration, which said clear guidelines already existed for police and courts on questioning suspects. It opposed adding age as a factor.
The Supreme Court case is JDB v. North Carolina, No. 09-11121.
(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Eric Beech)